TV Unspooled: The Office (U.S.), "The Dinner Party"

Does this show earn the title of the original?

It’s another instalment of this feature where I take a look at an episode of a show I’ve never seen before. This week, it’s time for one of the most beloved episodes of the American remake of The Office.

I’ve seen The Office. I’ve watched every episode multiple times. It ranks as one of my all time favourite sitcoms. I’ve just never seen this The Office.

As much as I have a distaste for everything Ricky Gervais has put out since 2007 or so, his version of The Office remains one of the most groundbreaking, challenging, and creatively engaging TV comedies ever made. I wouldn’t say I was ever really hostile to the idea of watching the US remake. I simply never got around to it. It’s the one titan of the golden age of TV’s glorious single camera comedy run that I just haven’t seen. I knew that it took the original series’ bitter, tragic but empathetic heart and tweaked it to play as a somewhat more normal, sunnier sitcom. As much as this might bother purists, it’s inevitable that a long running show needs standard sitcom plot fuel to reconstruct, let alone the fact of how draining it would be to watch 100 episodes of characters being put through the ringer the way Gervais and Stephen Merchant did it.

“The Dinner Party” certainly fits this expectation. It’s not especially hard to imagine what a British Office version of this would look like. Gervais’ David Brent never had a long term girlfriend as Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott does here, but if he did, she’d surely have her own intensity to counter his in a way that made them constantly on the verge of imploding. If he had ever invited the characters to a dinner party, it would undoubtedly be an episode that slowly ratcheted up the tension, in which he tried to fake a happy life but everything unwravelled into a violent argument with his girlfriend. The difference is in how this would be pitched tonally. You wouldn’t have to change any of the plot points; all you’d have to do is make it feel more tragic. Replace the tag with Jim and Pam at the end with something a little more melancholy, but otherwise just emphasise how awful Michael’s home situation is above how funny it is. Get the jokes just from the cringe factor. For all that this show is famed for moving away from the British version, the bones are all there for a great episode of the UK show.

The key element of how this show is different seems to be in showrunner and key creative voice Greg Daniels. A veteran of The Simpsons, Daniels’ natural tone seems to be in a slightly more zany mode than Gervais and Merchant. In aspects from Michael’s bed and TV to Jan’s workspace, there is more than a touch of live action cartoon to this sense of humour. The way the show’s continued fanbase (thanks to streaming) seem to talk about it is as though it resembles the archetypes they meet in their own lives. This isn’t a new trick, but much like The Simpsons, it understands that the best way to find humour in the types of people we universally meet is to take them to their cartoonist extremes, but keeping the core of recognisable humanity. A suck-up who irritates everyone like Dwight might be played to the extremes here, but there’s a good chance you’ve met someone in that mould at some point, and that resonates. This show’s contemporaries like 30 Rock and Community did wonderful jobs poking fun in their insular worlds, with their own languages only fans could interpret, but the big hits, such as Office, tend to speak universal truths instead.

I’ve been watching a lot of Parks and Recreation recently, for something that should hopefully be in this newsletter in a couple of weeks. Parks was created by Office writer Michael Schur alongside Daniels, and there’s plenty to like about it. Much like this show, Parks functions as a live-action Simpsons-esque cartoon. But something in Parks that always rubs me the wrong way is how it pushes its more bitter, cartoonish edges off to the minor characters. In Pawnee, the series regulars are generally depicted as delightful human beings the audience is invited to love, while just about everyone else in the town is treated with the extreme cynicism The Simpsons takes towards Springfield. Based on “The Dinner Party”, however, it seems like Office has a better balance. The absurdist, less than real turns are depicted within the protagonists as well as outside of them. Even Jim and Pam, the most “normal” people here, are clearly being more than a little mean to Michael and Jan at times. Office seems to remember to do what The Simpsons always knew: that Lisa was, deep down, every bit the Simpson.

If something bugged me in this episode, it was aspects of Michael and Jan’s relationship dynamic. I understand that Michael is the protagonist while Jan isn’t even a series regular, so there’s always going to be an imbalance. But the idea to portray Michael as a sexually frustrated middle aged man trapped under the thumb of a dominating woman who emasculates him and controls him by nagging about cleaning the house did not sit right with me. Again, I know the show is from Michael’s perspective, but this feels like such a straight use of an old sexist trope without really understanding what’s happening. Perhaps this is challenged somewhat over the course of the show, but “The Dinner Party” largely plays it by the book.

Overall, though, this episode went down a treat for me. I love a tightly constructed sitcom episode that builds and builds tension to an eventual release, especially when it’s able to jettison B or C-plots in favour of devoting everything to this. I imagine normal Office episodes employ a more conventional structure, with Michael doing whatever in the A-plot while Jim and Pam and Dwight and whoever else do something in the B-plot. But there’s something to be said for putting all of that aside and really focusing in on the single story you’re telling.

This show had a daunting task in taking the British show The Office, that flipped everything we knew about sitcoms on its head, and turning it back into the kind of easier to watch shows it was challenging in the first place. Without losing its original spirit. Clearly, it succeeded in this task, and the way it seems to have done it is just be modulating the tone a bit, and turning the cartoonishness up. But for all that its differences are lauded, even in an episode later in its run you can see the same DNA. That it achieved all this is something that absolutely makes it worthy of the reputation it has.